Sax & Swell Seasons: Eddie Vedder in Philly 6/25/2011

by Jessica Letkemann on June 27, 2011

Eddie Vedder on the Marquee of the Tower Theater, June 25, 2011.

Two beautiful words to see on a marquee: Eddie Vedder. Philly's Tower Theatre marquee on June 25, 2011. Photo: J. Letkemann

When the curtain came up on Eddie Vedder’s set at Philadelphia’s Tower Theatre on Saturday (June 25), the velocity at which the pesky strobe of contraband cameras irked him did not bode well for the evening’s festivities.

With opener “Can’t Keep” barely over, Ed murmured that he “felt like Justin Bieber because of all of the flashes.” But the old pro, of course, turned it around fast. “I’m going to make all of the faces I usually make right now so you can take all your pictures and get it out of the way,” he said, before miming his way through his classic, eyes-closed-emoting look and his fierce-open-mouthed-high-note look and the rare but ever popular sly-grin-between-lyrics look. The tone was set, with a laugh, and remarkably, the cameras pretty much stayed at bay for the rest of what turned out to be another evening of great sound chock full of special guests — Marketa Irglova of Swell Season!, Clarence Clemons’ sax-playing nephew Jake — and inspired song choices.

In keeping with his tendency this tour, Eddie was in particularly fine voice as he worked his way through a uke mini-set first, wrapping our ears deliciously around “Without You,” “Goodbye,” and “Broken Heart” through the Tower Theater’s especially superlative sound system. “If you don’t relate,” he said of the latter song, “I’m happy… But it’ll happen.”

Just as he revealed in New York that the wee hours and the moon begat “Unthought Known,” Eddie told the Philly crowd how “Ukuele Songs” track “Light Today,” which came next, was born a few months ago in Hawaii when he took a monnlit walk at 4am after a night of drinking.

“You’re True,” Dylan’s “Girl From The North County,” and “I Am Mine” sped by, and the next thing you knew it, Eddie was plucking the altered notes of the new-ish “Better Man” arrangement, saying, “the last time I played in Philly I remember something about Halloween on a Saturday night and a wrecking ball” as the crowd began to cheer his shout out to the last show at the Spectrum in October ’09. They cheered even louder when Ed introduced Spectrum staffer Charlie DeFabio — who had also had an onstage cameo at that last Spectrum show — to wish him a happy 90th birthday.

Unfortunately, shouters had made themselves heard through the night here and there. Ed cleaved the “Into The Wild” interlude that followed “Just Breathe” (“Far Behind,” “Long Nights” “Guaranteed,” “Rise”) into halves with a furiously fast “Lukin” delivered with a devilish “fuck you” after some audience dude bellowed “Luuuuuuuukiiiiiin” to kill the atmospheric ending of “Long Nights.” “Rise,” played on a mandolin, meanwhile, prompted Ed to elaborate on earlier comments that the mandolin is kind of stuck up compared to the uke. “It’s like a woman that spends all your money but won’t sleep with you,” he said. Adding, “Or if it were a man, he’d sleep on your couch and drink all your beer.”

There was the odd sense, during the ever melancholy wailing of “Arc,” that though the main set was ending, the night was just about to begin. Glen Hansard’s Swell Season partner Marketa Irglova had sat in with Hansard during his opening set and it seemed clear she was due to repeat the honor with Eddie. Additionally, a few of the PJ fans hanging out in front of the bar across the street from the stage entrance before the show had noticed an unidentified man entering with a saxophone case.

“Parting Ways,” got the blood flowing as the first encore began. The naturally huge singalong for the Beatles’ “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” which was next, followed a bittersweet story from Eddie about having spent the day not in Philly, but in New York’s Central Park. 80 degrees and perfectly sunny, he figured he would take his daughters to see Strawberry Fields, the patch of the park dedicated to John Lennon across the street from the Dakota building where he was shot in 1980. They ended up visiting the Dakota too, Ed said, but he quickly felt like it might be “the saddest place on earth.” The mood picked up, however, and he gave a shout out to Yoko for all her good vibes and work over the years before launching into “Hide Your Love” from John’s Beatle days.

I’ve heard some Cat Power that I’ve liked here and there over the years. She’s also had Eddie on one of her records, “Good Woman” from 2002′s “You Are Free.” So I can’t say I know a huge amount about her, but her duet with Eddie on “Tonight You Belong To Me” has been stuck in my head — in a good way — since “Ukulele Songs” came out. Along with “Better Days” (which I sadly haven’t heard in person yet), “Tonight” was at the top of the list of things I hoped to hear during these shows. I didn’t imagine that not only would that happen, but I would get to hear it sung by Ed and the amazing Marketa Irglova, who’s lilting voice was a great counterpoint to Ed’s.

A funny thing happens with Glen Hansard too. The man is obviously a huge talent and his opening sets have been both inspired and well received by the PJ-fan-heavy crowd. But catch a couple-two-three shows in a row, and he grows on you even more. So hearing him and Ed on “Society” and Glen’s own “Falling Slowly” kinda makes your breath catch in your throat a little. Eddie gets a lot of praise for his vocal skills, but I haven’t seen anyone specifically point out just how much he excels at being a duet partner. It somehow brings out something special in his voice you don’t normally hear.

But the key special guest of the night, it turned out, was that unfamiliar face with the saxophone. Just like New York City, Philadelphia is just one narrow body of water away from New Jersey. And with the death of friend and E. Street sax icon Clarence Clemons just a week passed, Ed was clearly still processing that grief. Tonight, the Big Man’s nephew, Jake Clemons, an accomplished sax player in his own right, had accepted an invitation to join Eddie on vocals/organ and Glen on vocals/guitar on Bruce Springsteen’s “Drive All Night.” It really takes a lot for a sax to sound great on a rock song, only a select few can make it sing, and Jake Clemons did his uncle proud.

“Porch” flew by next, as did “Hard Sun” with Clemons, Hansard and Irglova in lab coats joining Ed, but the emotional center of the night – from “Hide Your Love” through “Drive All Night” — had clearly passed, and the evening coasted to a close. I left sadly knowing it was the last of the three shows I was catching this tour, dashed to the subway to the midnight train back to New York. But out there speeding through New Jersey in the dark wee hours, I kept hearing “Drive All Night” in my head, and it certainly made me smile.

Jessica Letkemann ( Twitter: @Letkemann )
TFT co-editor Jessica Letkemann is a New York based digital music journalist & editor. She's currently VP & Editor-In-Chief of Digital at Fuse Media (Fuse.tv) and was previously managing editor of Billboard.com. She has also been on staff at Spin and Premiere magazines. Her first Pearl Jam show was at Lollapalooza on August 2, 1992.

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